The hundreds of opponents of a proposed move to allow blasting at a rock quarry near Pleasant Garden stood and applauded gleefully on Wednesday, Sept. 13 in the packed Old Guilford County Court House after there was confusion over the ruling of the Guilford County Planning Board that actually moved the project forward with a “favorable” recommendation.
Texas-based construction material supply company Lehigh Hanson has proposed rock mining using blasting at the large quarry just south of Pleasant Garden, and the celebrants who congratulated each other in the hallways and outside of the Old Court House right after the meeting that night had gotten a little of what they wanted – but they hadn’t gotten most of it: a denial of the project by the Planning Board.
The board’s five “yes” votes and three “no” votes in the rezoning request to allow mining at the site could have been worse for the group; one more yes vote would have meant “final approval” and that a hearing for a special-use permit for blasting at the site would have taken place that night to decide that issue as well.
The Planning Board had already scheduled a special-use permit hearing to immediately follow the 6 p.m. rezoning hearing; however, since the rezoning didn’t get “final approval,” the special-use permit hearing was called off and everyone got to go home much earlier than anticipated. Before the meeting, some audience members said they expected the two scheduled back-to-back meetings to go past midnight.
Though about 300 people packed into the Old Court House to show their opposition to mining operations at the rock quarry, another 200 or so were turned away by fire marshals. They weren’t even allowed in the building.
Some opponents of the rezoning said the county had promised to provide an room where the overflow crowd could watch the proceedings on closed-circuit TV; however, if that was promised, it was not delivered.
There was a very heavy security presence for the meeting – more officers in fact than the Rhino Times has seen at any Guilford County government meeting held in this century.
Lehigh Hanson is a supplier of cement, concrete, asphalt and other building materials for construction projects in the US, Canada and Mexico – and Hanson Aggregates Southeast, a subsidiary of Lehigh Hanson, had submitted the rezoning request heard that night, as well as a request for the special-use permit.
The approval of both would allow granite mining and rock blasting on 65 acres of a 350-acre area in southeast Guilford County near the corner of McClellan and Racine roads. In 2000, the land was rezoned to be used as a clay mine for Boren Brick. That rezoning, which is still in effect, designated the land “heavy industrial;” however, it didn’t allow blasting – an added permission Lehigh Hanson must get in order to extract rock from that site.
Though the Planning Board meeting was intense and at times contentious, there was no question that, regardless of how the Planning Board voted, the rezoning decision would end up in the hands of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners, since both sides planned to appeal the decision if they lost.
The rare and interesting Sept. 13 outcome gives the rezoning effort the board’s stamp of approval without putting the request into effect. Instead, the matter automatically goes to the Board of Commissioners with a ”favorable” recommendation, which means no one had to appeal the decision to the commissioners.
At the Sept. 13 hearing, each side got 20 minutes, with five minutes of rebuttal. Attorney Tom Terrell, of Smith Moore Leatherwood, did most of the talking for his client Lehigh Hanson in favor of the rezoning request, while Chuck Winfree, of Adams & Winfree, led the citizen-based opposition. Each attorney brought expert witnesses, illustrations and computer presentations.
At the hearing, Guilford County Deputy Planning Director Les Eger explained the proposal and said that the county planning staff had recommended approval of the rezoning since the land was already zoned heavy industrial, the rezoning was consistent with area plans and much of the property around the site is either vacant or thinly populated.
Terrell presented his case first. He said “blasting” was a “horrible word” for the type of controlled precision detonations that free up the rock. He said most people associated the term “blasting” with large explosions like those people see in Hollywood movies and he added that the explosions needed for mining would be infrequent, rarely heard and only last about one second each. He said many people who now live next to a blast sites or pass by one each day have no idea blasting is going on near them.
Terrell showed pictures of very nice custom homes built next to a quarry near Wake Forest, North Carolina. In one case a home was built very close to the quarry even though the quarry was there first.
“They knew that quarry was there and they chose to go there,” he said, adding that those homeowners had the means to live elsewhere.
He showed slides of how the quarry border would appear to those driving by and said of the exterior, “It would look almost like a country club.”
That comment brought a lot of laughter and a few jeers from the crowd.
Terrell also presented studies that showed the added truck traffic wouldn’t be onerous or dangerous for the community. While the blasting issue has gotten most of the media attention lately, one of the main concerns of the area residents isn’t the noise or the blast dust but instead what they claim would be problems caused on the small roads that, in places, have little to no shoulder.
One traffic study found that, if the project is approved and completed, there will be an average of 287 truck trips added each day. At the hearing, Terrell said that number of trucks isn’t expected to significantly delay area traffic, nor, he argued, would it be a danger to those on the roads.
Terrell quoted stats that meant to show that those roads are currently underused and those numbers drew laughter from some who travel the roads daily and who say some are heavily used no matter what the stats indicate.
Winfree, of course, had his witnesses as well. Pleasant Garden Mayor Carla Strickland, for one, spoke on the many concerns and the intense opposition of the community to the rezoning.
“The experts brought before you do not live in Pleasant Garden; the people in this chamber do,” Strickland said.
Plain-speaking former Guilford County Commissioner Billy Yow, who has over 30 years experience drilling wells as the owner-operator of D&Y Well Drilling, spoke of the dangers of blasting at the site to nearby wells. He said the operations would affect wells throughout the area both in terms of the quantity and quality of the water those wells produce.
“Once you break these fractures you can’t stop the bacteria from getting in,” Yow said.
“It’s going to have a dramatic effect,” Yow said. “Right down the road from this, there’s a nursing home; right beside it is a school, and right beside it is three churches.” He added that this was “creating risk” for all the wells in the area.
As part of his case in opposition to the rezoning, Winfree showed a sped up video taken from a car driving the roads around the site. It showed the narrowness of the roads, and Winfree’s video also contained cyclists, children playing near the roads and school buses entering traffic. At one point the video showed a big truck passing by and Winfree pointed out how that truck barely fit inside the lane.
Planning Board members asked a few questions and then voted, after which there was tremendous confusion.
After the Planning Board members verbally announced their votes one at a time, the count was 5 to 3 in favor of the proposed rezoning, so the crowd started booing.
However, Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne stepped up and attempted to announce that a 5-to-3 vote failed to get final approval.
Payne said later he was attempting to explain that no special-use permit hearing would be held that night and that everyone could go home.
However, when he said the word “failed,” people began cheering and offered a standing ovation to the Planning Board. Some media accounts also got it wrong or partly wrong.
The question of what the Planning Board had done was so confusing that Payne spent much of the next day explaining the situation to reporters.
In an email to the Rhino Times, Payne wrote that there are three possible results following a vote of the Planning Board on a rezoning matter: “(1) A favorable 5/7’s vote from the Planning Board shall constitute final action unless appealed … (2) Applications receiving less than a 5/7’s favorable vote, but a majority favorable vote from the Planning Board members present and voting shall constitute a favorable recommendation of the application and shall be forwarded to the Governing Body … (3) Applications receiving less than a majority favorable vote or unfavorable [vote] from the Planning Board shall constitute denial of the application unless appealed …”
One board member with a conflict of interest didn’t take part in the hearing, which meant that only eight members of the nine-member board were present and voting. Given that, it would take at least six favorable votes to surpass the five-seventh threshold and get final action approval of the rezoning, but there were only five yes votes.
That meant the vote failed to receive final action approval but it does automatically go forward to the Board of Commissioners as a favorable recommendation from the Planning Board.
Payne said he isn’t sure when the commissioners will hear the appeal but he said that if past cases are any indication, October or November would be the likely time.
While the Planning Board’s recommendation is that the commissioners approve the rezoning, there have been unanimous Planning Board approvals that have been unanimously overturned by the Board of Commissioners in the past.
After the Sept. 13 meeting, outside the Old Court House, many people were thanking Yow for his statements. One Planning Board member who voted no on the rezoning request sought out Yow, shook his hand and told Yow that his testimony was key in his decision to vote no.